Camouflage or the art of blending into the surroundings is commonly used by soldiers. Photographers too have adopted this. Now I see camouflage costumes, covers for tripods and lenses, backpacks and camera-bags, tents, water-bottles, flash-lights and what not.
Why soldiers use camouflage? Our eyes see colors in the day-light and our subconscious ignores anything that does not stand out. Person covered in green and yellow camouflaged costume is therefore difficult to notice in a forest compared to another person dressed in red. The one in red will stand out (to some extent due to the effects of color theory too on our minds). The soldiers in their camo-dresses, can therefore remain hidden from other soldiers.
When it comes to animals and birds, first thing – they are color blind mostly. Yep, they can not see colors. Some of them do see colors, but these colors appear very unsaturated to them. Did you know that pigeons can actually see colors far better than even humans? There are variations across species of animals and birds. Bees and butterflies can see in the UV region and make out polarization. Some reptiles can see in the IR region. However, in general their color vision is very poor. Photoreceptors responsible for red color vision are totally absent in their eyes. The bulls don’t run after the red waving cloth because of the red color. So how does camouflage help? It does and it doesn’t.
(Deers in the early morning hours. Nikon D200 with Sigma 150-500mm lens)
I have discussed with many wildlife photographers and this article is a summary of what I have learnt from them about camouflage and wildlife photography.
Animals have a very strong sense of smell and noise, but not so well developed color vision. They can hear and smell a person approaching from hundreds of meters away. Wildlife photographers do not use perfumed soaps, after-shave lotions and body sprays when out on field. Some of them don’t even bathe for many days at a stretch…..but let us not talk of them.
For noise, learning to trod quietly and quickly is a skill that many of us have yet to master. I have seen photographers who have mastered this skill, taking wonderful photographers with a 300mm lens than noisy ones struggle with even a 500mm lens. There are accessories also that help. One of the bird photographers I know swears by National Geographic shoulder camera bags. They are without any velcro or zips. Just the old fashioned canvas straps. Another one wears cotton cloths that do not create any noise while walking. You can have your own preferences for noise-free clothes and accessories.
Camouflage is a tough one. There are stores dedicated to selling camouflaged equipment and dresses. The best camouflage costumes that I have seen have strands and pieces of cloth attached on the outside and not just prints. These are heavy and really uncomfortable in hot weather.
So why is camouflage a tough question for photographers? Since animals and birds can not see the colors mostly, there is no use of wearing green. The camouflage works as long as there is no movement. As soon as there is any movement, camouflage costume becomes counter-productive in wildlife photography. The print has various dividing lines (or edges) between the printed components, When a person moves, the movement is visible across the costume. If you are planning on moving around a lot, camouflage may not be such a good idea. If you are planning on standing motionless for long hours, nothing better than camouflage.
(Camouflage Fabrics – as we see them. The image below has the same fabrics in monochrome, almost in the manner as animals and birds see them. Some of the animals do see colors but they appear very unsaturated to them with complete absence of red)
If you are planing on moving around a lot, try earthy colored clothes with plain colors. No designs or prints of any kind. The overall shades should be close to your grey card when seen on a black and white photograph. Avoid any shiny material and do not wear too bright (white, yellow) or too dark (black, dark blue) colors.
Items which are otherwise large and mostly stationary are good choices for camouflaging. Tripod and lens covers are useful. Tents are also useful. Camo printed under-garments? That’s taking things too far.
(Sigma 150-500 with LensCoat. Apart from camouflaging the lens, it also protects the lens body and keeps it cool when using under direct sun)
There’s no use in buying camo-printed lens caps, flash-lights, notebooks and phone covers for camouflaging. If they appeal to you, buy them as fashion accessories.
When I go photographing birds or animals, I wear an old jeans with a brown full-sleeves cotton jersey or t-shirt. No shiny rings or watch. Good comfortable sneakers but without any bright colors. A camo-printed boonie hat (the only boonie hat that I have).
Now the good news (which is sadly not a good news if you look at the reason behind it) – the animals in nationals parks and forests are now used to seeing humans in their different colored clothes. Every day hoards of tourists visit them. There are very few true forests left where animals have not yet seen humans. So, wear whatever is comfortable and not too flashy, and enjoy your photography.
(Sometimes, the clothes may reflect in the subject. Imagine a shiny insect in the wild. The clothes may show-up as reflections. This is where wearing dark clothes helps. Usually I recommend wearing earthy tones.)